SUMMER BEGAN WHEN? Was it on Memorial Day weekend—or, as Hollywood anointed it, Pearl Harbor weekend? Maybe it was earlier, since Shrek opened in mid-May. Or was it even further back that month, when The Mummy Returns launched its successful sneak attack at the multiplex (a day that will live forever in infamy)?
Since then, of course, the benchmarks of summer—or "tentpoles," in showbiz parlance—have been obvious enough: Moulin Rouge, Tomb Raider, A.I., Jurassic Park III, Planet of the Apes, and, finally, Rush Hour 2. So why does it feel like summer's already over without our having seen anything memorable?
We're not talking about box office hits or failures, nor do we care to. Every summer has its flops, misfires, and disappointments, and 2001 has been no exception. There have to be bombs, although that doesn't excuse certain critics for using "Bombs Away" as the headline for their Pearl Harbor write-ups. (How better to review a clich頴han with a clich鿩 Yet there also have to be unheralded little pictures that connect with audiences and critics alike (in fact, we depend on it; otherwise the work gets pretty tedious for reviewers and readers alike).
Among the surprises, Ghost World and Sexy Beast are receiving the most praise (although SW wasn't crazy about either title). More to our liking are Jump Tomorrow, a sweet little road comedy; Doris D�e's Enlightenment Guaranteed; the Aussie crime flick Chopper (superior to Beast); Zhang Yimou's The Road Home; Hedwig (of course); and Shrek, which is neither small nor a surprise, yet remains by far the most original and amusing studio film this summer.
AMONG THE TENTPOLES, the unworkable Spielberg-Kubrick m鬡nge called A.I. offers a cute-yet-mechanical brat who embodies the entire summer's assembly-line mentality. Like the creepy young David, these supposedly irresistible Hollywood darlings have been carefully designed to maximize the chances of our loving—er, imprinting with—the product. Problem is, as David discovers, all the products end up looking the same. The raptors chasing Sam Neill are like the apes pursuing Mark Wahlberg through the tropical undergrowth that Angelina Jolie mows down with her machete.
Jurassic and Apes share practically the same plot: heroes trapped in a world run by mighty savages that, we ultimately realize, possess a certain primitive dignity. In both films, however, the creatures are more charismatic than their human counterparts; both also would've benefited from Ms. Croft's two-fisted gunfire and in-your-face temerity, since mankind comes across a bit—shall we say?—wimpy in those interspecies encounters.
Granted, Tomb Raider is more effects than special (like The Mummy Returns); boldness of character stands in scant relief against cartoon-thin backgrounds. It's a weakness of writing, but weakness of coding is really more like it, since the digital domain has so thoroughly engulfed old analog values of character and plot. Pearl Harbor sums up this tendency: great, grand action flanked by flimsy caricatures purporting to be people. All those doomed little CGI sailors—like the passengers spilling off Titanic—are no less realistic than the B-list talent mugging in the spotlight (although Final Fantasy may put an end to that distinction).
SOMETHING'S MISSING from this summer's box office. So how about some rereleases of honest popular cinema?
Instead of the tepid America's Sweethearts, let's see Pretty Woman again. Instead of Jurassic Park III, let's take another look at one of its primary (uncredited) influences—Aliens (also allowing Ripley to rid us of Croft). For that matter, why not give us the original 1968 Charlton Heston version of Planet of the Apes in place of its mediocre remake? (Think of the lines outside the Cinerama!) Rather than A.I., how about a double bill of E.T. and A Clockwork Orange? Forget Kiss of the Dragon; let's have Enter the Dragon! As for The Score—Rififi. (Speaking of oldies, an expanded Spy Kids returns this week, and Apocalypse Now Redux in two weeks.)
Finally, some complain how a certain 1975 leviathan debuted on a record 700 screens to forever change Hollywood economics, signaling the rise of marketing over storytelling, of spectacle over subtlety, of the blockbuster over the slow build. Maybe that's true, but considering what movie—still the director's best—launched the trend, this dismal summer could yet be saved by its timely rerelease. It's not too late; bring back Jaws.